Design Diary 19

The Sting of Battle

Combat is one of the largest and most pervasive subsystems in D&D; everything eventually feeds into it. When you get right down to it, D&D is little more than "kill the monsters, take their gold".

The problem is that combat in D&D is clunky - there is lots of die-rolling, it's hard to keep track of what's going on, many combat actions quickly become sub-optimal (if they were ever optimal in the first place) after 5 or 10 levels, and combat almost requires a grid map. Additionally, all of these problems are exacerbated as you get to high levels - more attacks, more companions and henchmen, larger numbers of dice from spells and attacks, combat maneuvers become harder to perform/defend against. Fighters can either move and make a single attack, or stand still and make a full attack, whereas spellcasters can cast a single spell and wipe out entire groups of enemies. Immunities to energy, sneak attacks, mind-affecting effects, etc. render even more attack forms less useful, or completely useless (and also prompted the creation of feats to obviate those immunities).

So what to do? Obviously, a lot of the changes I've made in other areas directly affect combat - addition of feats that enable more mobility on the battlefield; changing the death and dying rules; elimination of immunities except in special cases; changing immunity to crits and sneak attacks to resistance to same - but on their own, they don't completely FIX the combat system. I had to alter how combat worked.

The initial changes to the combat system were many and varied: PCs can make fewer attacks per round while still getting some of their movement (this allows for more mobile combat); reducing the number of actions that provoke AoOs (reducing die-rolling and improving combat flow); changing how combat maneuvers worked in an effort to make them more viable; changed how cover and concealment worked (instead of percent miss chances, they add a flat AC bonus, which reduces die-rolling); and changed crits to make them more worthwhile.

For initial changes, they were all right. They were certainly better than the core rules, but I got feedback saying that some facets of the system were still underpowered. I listened, and looked at them myself, and I agreed. So, with some back-and-forth, multiple suggestions on to fix them, and some tweaking on my part, I overhauled the combat system. The changes include:

Swift actions: I've added swift actions, after a good degree of debate. I've been opposed to them since they first appeared, since I really saw little use for them, but including them enabled me to assign swift actions to some combat maneuvers and the combat stride.

Combat maneuvers: Combat maneuvers have been completely redone. All maneuvers use similar checks: 1d20 + (BAB) + (size mod) + ability mod vs. DC 10 + same. BAB and size mod factor into some maneuvers, like disarm and bull rush, and not others, because it simply made sense to add or remove them. For instance, you can be the best swordsman in the world and not have the faintest idea how to grapple, but you can disarm anyone (that's a function of your skill with a weapon). Likewise, attempting to knock someone over (bull rush, overrun, trip) doesn't require any special skill at arms, just large size and great strength. "Ability mod" is just that - a variable ability mod. Most maneuvers use either Strength or Dex, but feint uses Cha vs. the opponent's Wisdom (I just dropped the skill checks and kept the abilities that modified them).

No special maneuvers provoke AoOs. Instead, any that did before (disarm, grapple, and sunder) incur a -4 penalty when used against an armed opponent (in the case of sunder, this applies if you're trying to smash an attended item). Likewise, unarmed attacks no longer provoke AoOs; instead, making an unarmed attack against an armed opponent incurs a -4 penalty (because it makes no sense that two unarmed fighters should provoke AoOs from each other for every attack).

Feint was changed from an opposed Bluff check to use the same check as all the other maneuvers - 1d20 + BAB + Cha modifier vs. DC 10 + the opponent's BAB + Wis mod. I included BAB in this one because feinting can benefit from a PC's combat skill, and being able to recognize a feint also benefits from the same.

I ditched the degrees of success table for grapple, instead using a basic grab that then lets you perform any one of a number of other actions, some of which are accessible only through a feat. Hawken came up with the initial idea (which I think he borrowed from SWSE), and I adapted it a bit based on my own experience as a judo player. I really like this new system - it's very realistic while still enabling PCs to do "cool stuff" with a reasonable degree of success. The changes also let me eliminate the size limits that I originally had for grappling - you can't pin or throw someone who's larger than you, but you can still grab/hold them and limit their movement, for example.

Sunder is gone, along with the called shot rules. Called shots was just a broken system; it was something I whipped up one day when I was bored and never really looked at afterward. Sunder is just a dumb mechanic that duplicates the Breaking Objects rules (which are already listed under Combat Actions), so I just ditched it.

Two weapon fighting got overhauled. Instead of having to take a feat each time you want to gain a new attack, you take the feat once and it scales - each time you gain a new iterative with the main hand, you get a new offhand attack. Similarly, two-weapon fighters automatically gain a shield bonus, which Two-Weapon Defense increases. I also changed the penalties for fighting with two weapons to a simple -6/-6; a light offhand weapon reduces this by 2, and the TWF feat reduces it by a further 2, for a grand total of -2/-2. Thus, I could drop the table and the uneven penalties (I don't seriously think that reducing the offhand penalty by a few points will break the system, and it's an overall benefit to simplify them).

Fighting Offensively/Defensively: I've seen these suggested several times on a few forums and thought they were good ideas, but never considered incorporating them until I decided to redo the combat system. Basically, anyone can use Combat Expertise or Power Attack, in a limited form, while making normal attacks - you can sacrifice 2 points of BAB for 1 point of AC or damage bonus. The CE and PA feats increase this to a 1:1 ratio (and PA gives you x2 Str bonus damage). This let me drop the Total Defense action entirely, and it gives players more flexibility in combat.

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